Contributed by Mitzi László, author of Clicking Away.
A third of the world still have no access to improved sanitation facilities, with almost 1 billion people who defecate in the open. So, a charity initiative set about installing toilets and had just finished another installation for a community. The charity cut the ribbon and set out only to come back a few months later for a maintenance check. The maintenance crew opened the brand new unused toilet door to find that the cabinet was being used as a general storage unit. For generations this community had been defecating in the streets and fields of the area, how would you even begin convincing them that the flushing toilet was preferable? How do you explain that defecating outside of a flushing toilet was linked to disease? Seems like a far stretch, you would need to pull out a proper investigation to really work that out.
Dr. John Snow (not that one) went about doing exactly that in the 1850s. At the time it was believed cholera was transmitted through the air. Dr. Snow had a hunch that the transmission was in fact through water as we now know it to be. He set about mapping deaths in relation to water sources, and despite strong evidence-based arguments the common perception was still that cholera was transmitted through air. Dr. John Snow’s frustration led him to breaking a water pump which he had identified as a transmission point of the disease leading to many deaths. Now, over 100 years later, our societies have evolved into healthier ones thanks to the work of Dr. John Snow.
So, when people ask me why we should care about data, I understand. Perhaps, we cannot be expected to react emotionally and instinctively understand that defecating in open streets would lead to death. Similarly, we deposit our data anywhere in open streets without much thought to where it would go and what it will cause.
What’s the issue with data? Data makes processes more efficient. The question is which process do we want to make more efficient, and who should decide. Today, by default, the owner of the sensor is the owner of the data. By default, sensor owners call the shots. This is why I will be looking at where our data is stored, who controls it, and what are their opinions on Internet ethics.
For example, research institutions are actively converging data to conduct more detailed and wider scope research. Theoretically, researchers are working in the public interest. But should all public health data be controlled by research institutions around the globe without much thought into the governmental regime or agenda in place?
A handful of companies are default owners of a vast amount of internet browsing and communication data that could be used to influence public opinion. And has. In the recent Cambridge Analytica Facebook case, data was used to influence voting behaviour. This is no extraordinary activity, it is systematic design. The business model of Facebook is to influence behaviour, however, originally it was used to influence buying behaviour. Again, the sensor owner calls the shots on which process to make more efficient without any checks and balances in place.
The difference between installing flushing toilets and controlling data is that the current legislation depends on public pressure. The enforcement of GDPR depends, in part, on public pressure for the supervisory authorities to act. The recent Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal brought the discussion of Internet ethics into the spotlight for a brief period, but it is still not at the forefront of public concern. One of the reasons being that this social issue is disguised as a technical issue and hidden in terms and conditions.
GDPR states that there needs to be transparency in the terms and conditions, but not many people read these long texts of small print presented to us at frankly inconvenient times and presented as blocks to what we are trying to do: buy a train ticket, chat to our mother, look up some information online.
In response to the pressing issues of internet ethics brought upon society, ‘Clicking Away’, a book containing 12 true short stories about Internet ethics, was born. Through a series of interviews I will be investigating what really is going on under the hood of the Internet. Clicking Away will tell technical stories in more approachable language, regardless of your profession. The intention being to demonstrate why Internet ethics matters, and why we should really care.
As part of the #Foreword community you are part of a hotbed of discussion around the themes of Internet ethics. Clicking Away is a vehicle to bring the discussions to a wider audience. I strongly believe that we all benefit from greater awareness by a larger audience about the issues we care about. #Foreword is at the heart of designing new politics in a digital age. Clicking Away is a tool for you to find answers to burning questions so that we can design practical solutions together in an Internet era.
More on how you can provide for your own data protection by requesting digital rights here.
Moreover, Unbound, the publishing house, is founded by a group of people working at bookshops who were interested in the curation process. That moment a person walks into a bookshop and you try and work out what they would like to read. Often authors publish books without much consultation with the readers, this is why Unbound publishes half books to give the readers a chance to influence the book. Backers of Clicking Away can make requests via the Unbound site on questions to investigate or people to interview.
Check out an extract of Clicking Away on the Unbound site and learn how to make a request on who to interview of questions you would like answers to. The core message of the book is to build a backbone of rigorous evidence-based investigation which provides a down-to-earth springboard for constructive public debate.
Mitzi László is the author of the upcoming book “Clicking Away”, a compilation of 12 short true stories about data ethics through a series of interviews as a springboard for informed public debate.
She has previously worked as an ethics consultant for the European Commission and data buyer for ING bank.